Five Ways to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

Dr. Amir

Surprisingly, more women are concerned about their risk of breast cancer than their risk of developing heart disease, although heart disease is the leading killer of older women. Maybe it's because breast cancer is shrouded in mystery. Unlike heart disease where there's an abundance of data on how to prevent it, there's less credible information about reducing breast cancer risk. In spite of this, there are still things you can do to swing the odds in your favor - and potentially lower your risk of getting breast cancer.

Get Moving.

Numerous studies show that exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer - and the younger you are when you start the better. But even if you spent the first forty years as a couch potato, exercising later in life still seems to offer some protection against breast cancer.

How hard do you have to exercise to get benefits? Most studies suggest that more intense exercise offers greater protection against breast cancer than low-intensity workouts - but even a thirty minute walk daily reduces the risk to some degree. Exercise may ward off breast cancer by reducing levels of hormones like estrogen and insulin-like growth factor, which stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

Change Your Diet

Studies looking a diet and breast cancer risk haven't always been consistent, but there's some preliminary evidence that eating more fruits, vegetables and foods high in fiber lowers the risk, although the protective effects of such diets appear to be modest. Choose your veggies wisely. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and kale are the best choices since they contain enzymes that favorably alter estrogen metabolism and help rid the body of cancer-causing toxins.

Some research also shows that high-fat diets boost the risk of invasive breast cancer in post-menopausal women - and switching to low-fat, plant-based protein sources may be of benefit. A study published in the journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Biomarkers Prevention showed that vegans have lower levels of insulin-like growth factor, a hormone that promotes breast cancer growth.

Change What You Drink

Alcohol may protect against heart disease, but having a few drinks could raise your risk of breast cancer. Studies show that women who drink as little as one alcoholic drink a day have a higher risk of breast cancer - and women who drink three or more alcoholic drinks a day increase their risk by a whopping 50%. Is it worth the risk?

Watch Your Weight

Weight is another important issue when it comes to breast cancer. Weight gain after the age of eighteen is linked with a greater risk of breast cancer, especially for women who gain more than 20 pounds after the age of eighteen.

Interestingly, being overweight before menopause may be protective. After menopause overweight and obese women have a greater risk, possibly because they have higher levels of circulating estrogen. To reduce breast cancer risk, exercise and lose weight if you're carrying around a few too many pounds. Otherwise, try to keep your weight stable as you age.

Don't Take Hormone Replacement Therapy

Hormone replacement therapy helps with hot flashes, but it boosts the risk of breast cancer too. Women who take combined hormone replacement therapy, consisting of estrogen and progesterone, boost their risk of breast cancer by about 5% each year they take it. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of using hormones after menopause, and ask about alternatives to hormone replacement therapy.

Other Potential Ways to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

There are other ways to potentially reduce the risk of breast cancer, although they remain unproven at this point. One study in 2004 found a link between breast cancer and antibiotic use, so avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily. Reducing environmental exposure to pollutants such as cigarette smoke, pesticides and other toxins may reduce breast cancer risk as well. Don't smoke - and eat organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Don't forget to get your screening mammogram. It may not prevent breast cancer, but it will pick it up earlier so there's a better chance for a cure.

References: "High Fat Diet May Increase Breast Cancer Risk"
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, March 21, 2007. "Physical Activity and the Prevention of Breast Cancer"
Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev November 2002 11; 1441.
American Cancer Society. "Menopausal Hormone Replacement Therapy and Cancer Risk"